Meditation 101

Why Wellness and Meditation Apps Need More Diverse Voices (Literally)

Kells McPhillips

Graphics: Well+Good Creative
At this point, many people have turned to their phone for mindfulness instruction; and, given that the market for meditation and mindfulness apps is expected to more than double to about $342 million by 2029, more are sure to join their ranks in the coming years. But despite its loyal and growing consumer base and capital support, diverse voices on meditation apps are scarce. While many prominent apps feature women and people with non-American accents, voices belonging to Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) instructors are almost nonexistent on the top 10 most-downloaded apps on the Apple iTunes store. It's a fact that disenfranchises marginalized and minority populations, and—in order to provide effective tools for healing and self care to these groups—must change.

"I think we heal better when we hear things in our own voice," says Nicole Cardoza, a yoga teacher and founder of Anti-Racism Daily and Wellemental, which is an inclusive meditation and movement app for children that launched in the fall of 2020. When people aren't able to hear voices that sound like their own on a meditation and mindfulness app, the express purpose for using the app in the first place becomes ineffective.

"When you don't see yourself in a wellness space, or a space that's supposed to be about healing…it comes off as [saying my healing] is not being treated as a priority." —Neeti Narula, a yoga and meditation instructor

"When you don't see yourself in a wellness space, or a space that's supposed to be about healing, it's kind of like, 'Well, what does that say about how I should heal? What does that say about the way these spaces are prioritizing my healing and my community's mental well-being? It comes off as [saying my healing] is not being treated as a priority," says Neeti Narula, a yoga and meditation instructor in New York City. Just like seeing someone who looks like you in a physical space can function as a signal to you that you belong and are welcome, hearing a voice that sounds like yours can can be auditory assurance that your experience is valid and acknowledged. And that's why, when the murder of George Floyd brought issues of race and colonization to the forefront of public conversation, Narula found herself searching for other Indian yoga teachers to befriend and collaborate with.

That search for likeness—via voice or other means—is an essential component of being human, according to Farha Abbasi, MD, a cultural psychiatrist at Michigan State University. "Whenever we are stressed, we want to go back to something familiar that has been comforting to us in the past," says Dr. Abbasi. Psychologists have traced this instinct back to childhood, when your brain first learns what and whom to associate with emotion. The same logic can apply to wellness practices. Your youngest sources of comfort extend to adulthood, so if young people don't hear themselves in meditation apps, they don't have the same access as people who do to cultivate a comfort-based, healing-based, or stress-relieving-based association with the programs.

This means that diverse voices on meditation apps benefit both children and adults. Every time a child meditates (and 2019 research indicates that about 5 percent are doing so), they further define how they will interact with the practice later in life. And every time an adult meditates, it's all about the freedom of finding healing, as Cardoza says, "in their own voice"—a voice they may remember from childhood. It follows that, in light of racially-charged murders, a history of systemic racism, and other traumatic events, many meditators of color may find trauma—not solace—in hearing white voices. By design, meditation's purpose is to create a safe internal space inside oneself; for many meditators who are BIPOC, hearing white voices that stir up feelings of oppression, violence, and injustice perhaps isn't the best way to facilitate that healing.

In recent years, research has also begun illuminating the connection between voice underrepresentation and perpetuating stereotypes, says Okim Yang, PhD, a linguistics professor at Northern Arizona University. "You may hear a lot of children's movies and TV shows still where the main characters are always having this white standard accent, and all the bad guys tend to have some kind of [other] accent," says Dr. Yang. "That's why all the princesses and princes—whether the movie's based on Chinese culture or African culture or European cultures—all these main actors have a standard white accent." When children grow up only hearing these accents in specific ways like such, Dr. Yang's research has found that they develop stereotypes that match. Some children will grow up to hear white voices as more "trustworthy" when accents obviously don't indicate intelligence or truthfulness.

Diverse voices on media like meditation apps will combat linguistic discrimination by introducing children and adults to myriad speech types.

For example, one of Dr. Yang's forthcoming studies asked participants to identify spoken sentences that were grammatically incorrect. When those who have non-white standard accents, as Dr. Yang calls it, spoke, participants were more likely to say their sentences were ungrammatical compared to when those who spoke with a white standard accent. In reality, there was no difference in the sentences or grammar presented to the participants. "These findings indicate that participants were already carrying biases for the accent before they even began to talk," says Dr. Yang. "These stereotypes make an impact on children's judgment, and they can grow significantly over time without [anyone] realizing it. Parents don't realize it. Children don't realize it. Therefore, it gradually creates linguistic discrimination." In time, Dr. Yang believes that the presence of diverse voices on media like meditation apps will combat linguistic discrimination by introducing children and adults to myriad speech types.

Iman Gibson, a health educator and meditation teacher, says that beyond inviting BIPOC into previously white-centered healing spaces and combatting biases, inclusive meditation voices also send the message to white and white-passing folks that meditation is available to all. She likens the shift to the body acceptance movement now taking place with certain apparel brands, like Girlfriend Collective or Outdoor Voices. "In their ads, they have women who are older, they have women who have vitiligo, they have plus-sized women. What this does over time is normalize for everyone else that this is what our world is. This is who we are as a society. It makes you start to de-center yourself and center a more representative picture of what the world around you [looks like]," says Gibson. Imagine the same level of diversity, but in a meditation app's library.

BIPOC creators have started to bring their visions of what inclusive meditation offerings can be to the app store. Liberate ($10 per month) launched in May 2019 with 40-plus BIPOC teachers who hail from different meditation lineages and backgrounds and Shine—a Black-cofounded wellness app that offers meditation—was selected as one of Apple’s Best Apps of 2020. And with more development, pressing play on meditations will soon mean dialing into a mode of healing that's open to all—not just white folks.

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